Can’t is a strong word

Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) ran a post this week on “Things I want but can’t have until my children are older.” The list reflects things that will certainly be easier when children are older (like sleeping in, and owning nice china), and is pretty light-hearted, which is why the blogger didn’t want a lecture on life optimization, per the comment exchange.

So I’ll put one here!

Not directed at Grumpy Rumblings. More generally. Can’t is a strong word. When we’re talking about people with some disposable income, and reasonable amounts of social capital, then the list of normal things you truly “can’t” do is limited. It’s a question of whether you care enough to make the trade offs.

For instance, let’s look at getting a full night’s sleep, including sleeping in, for a week or more. I just arranged this when my husband took the kids to the beach for a week so I could finish the draft of Mosaic. (I didn’t sleep in, but that’s because of my own sleep and productivity patterns). Sometimes people have extended family who are willing to watch the kids for a few days, or sometimes people can pay for overnight childcare and then hole themselves up in a hotel. To be sure, there are trade offs. I probably won’t take another week “off” any time soon -- because I’ve called in those chits. Money used to pay for extended childcare can’t be used for other things, and those other things are often much bigger family priorities (like family vacations).

But this doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

Then there is the matter of owning nice things. I have been to parties where people have gorgeously decorated houses. Many of these people are parents of kids who are my kids’ ages. I don’t know quite how they have arranged to have expensive-looking objects arranged around their houses. Maybe they lock them up except for parties. Maybe the kids are forbidden to go in certain rooms. Maybe the kids are constantly watched. Maybe their kids break these objects frequently and the parents keep replacing them. Maybe the items only look expensive and are just random things they found at flea markets and spray-painted white. I really don’t know how they’re making their beautiful homes happen. But likely there is some solution I could avail myself of if I cared enough. Which I realize I probably don’t.

Of course, there are many other “can’t” statements that are really trade offs that don’t involve children. For example: I “can’t” quit this job I hate because everyone knows it’s impossible to get another one in this economy (whoever “everyone” is). I “can’t” try to publish my poetry because serious people like me don’t do that. But I think I am particularly sensitive to “can’t” statements involving kids, because this is the refrain of the whole “can’t have it all” soundtrack booming through our culture. Sleeping in and nice china are great, but they’re not the big issues. In much more serious cases, these can’t-statements nurture self-imposed limitations that help along patriarchal notions. I “can’t” work full time when I have young kids because...? Why? I “can’t” go back to school because I have a family and...therefore what? There may be trade offs, and within one’s broader values (and utility functions and budget constraints), these trade offs may not be worthwhile, but that’s not the same as “can’t.”

I like using the language of choice because it reminds us that big chunks of life are choices. Not all, to be sure (so feel free to leave comments about things that truly can't happen -- that's fine!) but big chunks. And even if we are choosing certain things that agree, generally, with what the larger narrative says we “can’t” do, those decisions are often within our control. We can choose differently when we’ve decided that our circumstances are different, or that we want to make our circumstances different. 

What do you do that some people think you can’t?

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27 Responses to Can’t is a strong word


  1. Sonya says:

    One aspect of this conversation that is missing is the concept that you have things now that you won’t (can’t) have if the situation were different. Older kids certainly give you more freedom in many ways, but you don’t get those full-out, all-in bear-hugs that little ones give, or the look of wonder and surprise when they experience something magical for the first time. The grass is always greener. There is always some give and take. Each person must decide for herself what is a priority, and then make decisions accordingly. As I say to my kids, make your choice and then don’t look back and bemoan the fact that you didn’t make a different choice. Either change your decision, or look forward and get on with it, enjoying the choice you did make.

    A side note on fine china and kids . . . I have three girls (admittedly a different dynamic than boys, but I have friends with boys and this method has worked with them also) and they have always used breakable plates and glasses as soon as they were old enough to come out of the high chair. They only use them at the table with supervision. Children don’t learn to handle things carefully unless they are allowed to handle things that require care and attention. You can’t learn to walk a balance beam just by looking at it. You have to try and fall off before you begin to get the hang of it. We have had 2 broken glasses in 15 years. I only let them use items I can replace. My grandmother’s teacups, which I use regularly, are off limits to the kids. In my opinion, it is worth the price of a few pieces of china to teach my children that not everything is indestructible and some things need to be handled more carefully than others.
    Decorative delicate items are not my thing, so that aspect has never been an issue for us, however they all know that not all games or behaviours are appropriate for all situations, for adults as well as kids. :>

    • Laura says:

      @Sonya – true on the learning to use nice china. I think my boys would be OK with it. My 2-year-old daughter is the one who still throws things. I just sort of naturally give all 3 of them the same plastic plates to cut down on a potential source of bickering, but maybe she’d decide that seeing her brothers use grown-up plates would be motivational…

      • Sonya says:

        I think the motivational aspect of learning to be “careful enough” to use the “delicate” cups and plates might work. I tend to shy away from the “being a big girl” or “grown up enough” motivator. Sometimes having your own particular plate or cup can also help (nothing special . . . thrift stores can be a great place to find something that appeals to your daughter, and china is easy to disinfect). I don’t like to create a mindset of having to rush to grow up in order to do certain things. I prefer to link the ability to do certain things to behaviours or demonstrated maturity rather than calendar age or comparing to siblings. That opens up a whole other can of worms I’d prefer to not deal with!

        • Corelle is still breakable (we’ve lost one plate so far), just not as breakable as Lenox. We started with a place setting of 8 of sturdy Target Homeware and would have just bought another if they hadn’t discontinued that pattern. Now we have two kids and have 3 plates, 5 cups, and 2 bowls remaining. We’re still using these 3 plates, 5 cups, and 2 bowls, and indeed, had more of them when we bought the Corelle set less than a year ago.
          *
          It was, in fact, the realization (after days of looking at dinnerware sets online because we were running out of plates and bowls before the dishwasher ran) that just because we could now afford Spode and Lenox and Wedgwood didn’t mean it was a good idea to purchase them that prompted what was supposed to be a fun and lighthearted and non-judgmental post. Instead I’m getting judged because I didn’t list all of the possible ways I could still have pretty breakable china and why they’re not going to work for me. Really? I have to justify why we bought Corelle and aren’t going to replace it with Lenox or Spode until my kids are older? Really?
          *
          Our youngest is not even two. We have never had separate plastic-ware for the kids and do not want to (and now I’m sure I have to explain why). We also don’t use and do not have a high chair (again, you probably want me to explain that decision too). She’s a big girl in many ways, but occasionally she will set her plate down and accidentally fall on it, breaking it with her rear end. Or trip while carrying a cup. Occasionally our 7 year old will leave one of the breakable bowls on a counter and one of the 3 kittens we rescued will knock it off because she hasn’t quite learned she’s not supposed to jump up there.
          *
          It’s again pretty condescending to assume that we’re not teaching our children how to be careful around nice things just because we’re not buying a new set of fine china until they’re older. Teaching them how to be careful isn’t inconsistent with putting locks on the knife drawer and chemical cupboard or covers on the outlets. Nor is it inconsistent with buying plates and bowls that only shatter a small fraction of the times they’re dropped.
          *
          Also my boy is very careful, but my daughter is a wild thing and is responsible for most of our breakage. Gender stereotypes are ridiculous.

      • ARC says:

        Montessori and Reggio Emilia preschools are big on using real glassware and stoneware plates, etc. for kids. I think there’s some pretty sturdy stuff out there that would be good practice as a transition option. I find that the IKEA plastic stuff we normally use seems to invite more throwing by the 1.5yo than the heavier stoneware bowls (which I don’t care about even if they do break).

  2. I read a similar article a while ago regarding personal finance that made the same point about people saying that they “can’t afford” something – the reality is often that they could afford something (a nice vacation, for example) if they prioritized it over something else (eating out three nights a week, cable tv, brand new cars, etc). Our priorities in life are often indicated by where we spend our money.
    .
    I think that you’re right in saying that the choice of language is important because, if nothing else, it gives one a sense of control over a situation rather than playing the victim to circumstance. I agree that saying “Fine china isn’t a good choice in my home right now because I don’t want to risk my children breaking it” is much more positive than saying “I can’t have fine china because I have kids.”

  3. Our rebuttal to this is mostly finished and in our drafts folder. (Wrote it already earlier this week.) Research and we disagree that always saying “don’t want to” instead of “can’t” is a good thing for happiness. There are big literatures in psychology and sociology that show that limiting choices with absolutes can A. make the people making the choices happier and more productive and B. make other people feel better about your choices. The “Laura Vanderkam way” often does not have a research base, which is too bad, because I suspect sometimes it hurts more than it helps. Sometimes it does have that base, and it’s much better when it does.
    *
    As we note in our future post, in your world, homosexuality suddenly becomes a choice. If homosexuals had a different utility function and different budget constraint, they’d be heterosexual! Which is true, but is that really a choice? NO. (So you could then argue it’s the homosexual *actions* that are the choice, but sociology studies show that when it’s set up as biological rather than a choice, other people are more supportive of homosexual life-styles.)
    *
    And it is seriously irritating to be lectured on this topic when you’ve written a light-hearted post. Because then you have to be all, “oh, well, gee, if instead of saying “can’t” I’d said based on this paragraph long list of trade-offs that I’m making. Well, gee, that just makes me feel annoyed that I’m making all these trade-offs because now I’m having to remember exactly *why* we have Corelle and what we would have to trade-off to not have it. Or a long explanation of why we don’t want a week without our two year old which nobody cares about and will probably end up sounding judgy because people often think that other people’s decisions are judging theirs. And that is no fun.
    *
    So, yes, in some cases, it’s good to think about what your other options are, if you haven’t done that already. It can get you thinking about the trade-offs you’re making. But when we say, “can’t” we have already calculated where our utility curve hits our budget constraint and we don’t want to have to explain to you all of those details.
    *
    We call bs. Unless you’re a defeatest sort of person who never thinks about why you “can’t” do stuff and it turns out those underlying reasons are stupid. Then you should think about why and stop saying can’t. I suppose that audience does buy a lot of self-help books. But they don’t tend to read our blog, because our underlying assumption is that our readers are making rational decisions based on their preferences. We have nothing to offer them. But we are interested in light-hearted lists of things they “can’t” have until later and why not.

    • To put another way, when was the last time that you appreciated someone telling you, “Well, you *could* do X if you really wanted. You must just not want it enough.” It’s a pretty condescending observation to make when it’s true, and it’s pretty awful when it isn’t (for example, saying to an infertile friend, “if you wanted children enough you’d adopt”).

    • Penelope Trunk just wrote an interesting post on the subject of why limited choices are better for us that reminded me of this.

    • Karen says:

      I agree with N&M here. Sure, “can’t” is a strong word, but sometimes a strong word is what’s called for. And I like the examples N&M chose of things that are better not construed as choices. I find the research that shows that limited choices make for both better choices and more happiness for the chooser to be pretty compelling.

      I remember when I first read in 168 hours the statement that you shouldn’t say you “don’t have time,” but instead say that “it’s not a priority.” Looking at some of the things I did and didn’t do through that lens was helpful to me. It made me readjust some of my own priorities and time use.

      But back then I also worked for a woman who unable to say no, and from my observations, a major obstacle to her being able to say no was that she didn’t like to disappoint people. She talked about priorities, and other people were always able to convince her that whatever they wanted her to do should be a priority. She ran herself and her staff ragged with overgiving and a lack of clear boundaries.

      So I think these kinds of statements, “I don’t have time,” or “I can’t” are sometimes necessary little white lies that help you set important boundaries. Certain things may not be a priority to you, and that may be the real reason you are saying no, but you shouldn’t always have to share that reason. Your priorities may be none of their business. And then I think that saying “I don’t have time” or “I can’t” may be appropriate.

      • ARC says:

        I totally made this analogy too, with that “it’s not a priority” statement. Many “can’t” statements by others don’t go into the details, for the same reason you and N&M mention – that it may not be prudent to share, or that it sounds rude, etc.

        But I think LVK has a point here – if you are telling yourself you “can’t” do something but haven’t examined more behind it, there may actually be something to it. Sort of an “always question the underlying assumption when trying to solve a problem” thing. If you WANT to solve it, that is.

        • Karen says:

          Yes, ARC, absolutely, I think it depends on the context and the audience. It’s different if you are telling yourself you can’t do something vs. telling other people that you can’t do something. And it’s also different if you actually want to solve the problem vs. if you don’t. I think that Ana, below, also makes a very good point that some problems just aren’t worth solving, or at least not worth solving right now, if ever.
          *
          The reason I think it’s important to make this distinction between self and others is that many people are in work and/or family situations where what you tell yourself isn’t as important as what you tell others. If you work for yourself and set your own schedule and priorities, then it matters most what you tell yourself. But that’s very different from having a person or people at work who are setting the schedule and priorities for you. Then you have to make setting boundaries with others a priority (so to speak), and playing mind games with yourself–do I really want to solve this problem? is this really what I choose to do? questioning the underlying assumptions, etc.–becomes a time-wasting distraction, at best.

          • Not to mention that in many cases the “can’t” comes after you’ve finished the decision-making process. (For example, you bought the Corelle for a reason!)

          • Ana says:

            Yes! This is what I was getting at—that “can’t” is quite helpful shorthand to bypass having to explain all the priority-setting and choice that went into your decision. And it sucks to have your “can’t” judged and dismissed by others, as if you hadn’t put the work in to arrive at the decision. And yes, things like buying china does seem to be on “not worth the time” to go through the whole priority-setting process.

          • Thank you!

  4. oldmdgirl says:

    “Sometimes people have extended family who are willing to watch the kids for a few days, or sometimes people can pay for overnight childcare and then hole themselves up in a hotel.”

    And sometimes people really don’t have either of those options. For instance, I *could* have my disabled mother who can’t walk take care of my toddler. But that would be really stupid. And she would never do it. And… oh wait! We have no extended family (as in literally). We *could* pay a babysitter whatever the going rate is for overnight care ($125 per night?) plus a hotel that doesn’t have bedbugs (another $125 a night… at least?). The reality is a lot of people really truly can’t justify doing that. Median income in the US is what, 50K for a family of 4?

    Just saying. You have many more choices than a lot of people do. “Can’t” is a reality for a lot of folks.

    • And even if you do have the money (your point is definitely taken, and even among the upper-middle class most don’t make as much as LV’s family seems to), who leaves an almost two year old who is keeping you up because she’s in pain? (The original post specifically said the lack of sleep was because of teething. And yes, to forestall questions, Motrin has to be re-administered after it wears off.)

  5. Chelsea says:

    To be slightly more lighthearted than a few previous commenters, no, I really can’t enjoy a meal with my 19-month-old without something being thrown on the floor. And believe me, it’s a priority.

    • Shelly says:

      My 21 month old now says all done and not by also throwing the food on the floor which was also her MO. Although if she doesn’t like something it does have to come off the plate – at least now she hands it to me.
      I do use breakable plates a lot of the time. It was never an issue with the older one ever. The younger one is much more feisty. I just make sure I’m close by when she says all done and tries to hand over the plate (we had one plate lost when she dropped one before I could take it from her).

      • Chelsea says:

        If I can catch him *right* at the moment he’s done, I can ask if he’s all done, and he will tell me, but often I’m not paying super close attention because I’m eating, too. I expect that he’ll grow out of it once he becomes more verbal, but right now…

        • ARC says:

          We’re in the same boat here with the 21 month old, though I did observe that she’s much less likely to throw the heavier stoneware stuff than our IKEA plastic stuff. Oddly.

  6. Natalie says:

    I appreciate that Laura challenges false choices, and she does note that not all the trade-offs would be practical or worthwhile. I recently read a working mom blog entry where the author said she hadn’t been to a movie theater for a grown up movie since having kids. The post implied she didn’t have time for movies, but I know this person goes out with friends at least a couple of times per month. She has time for non-kid activities. She just chooses not to spend that time going to movies. Choosing not to is different than can’t go, but the blog implied she couldn’t go because of kids. Maybe the commiserating style of writing is more popular, but I like to see Laura’s suggestions and examples of how to make things happen.

    • Laura says:

      @Natalie – thanks, I appreciate it!

  7. Alissa W says:

    This dovetails nicely with a rant that’s been forming in my head – I am so tired of people saying they can’t be on time because of their kids. I get that sometimes there is that last minute diaper blowout but using kids as a reason you can’t every be on time is a huge copout in my opinion. Plus what is this teaching our kids – it’s ok to be late. As always I enjoy how you point out that we do always have a choice. I also remind myself that this is just the season I’m in. Oh and to the people who grumble about always driving their kids to activities – that’s your choice too – you child doesn’t have to play every sport!

  8. Ana says:

    I do and don’t agree. I think classifying things as choices or priorities does make sense, when you are trying to figure out how to spend your time & money. Once you’ve recognized your priorities, its better to just draw the line and move on. Its freeing. I freed myself from lots of things I thought I should be doing, when I didn’t have the energy or motivation to do them, by categorizing them as “not in this season of life”. Which I guess is “can’t right now” just in more positive language? Same with money, sure I could save money in bits & pieces over the next few months to buy the fancy boots or bag I envied on a friend, but when the money isn’t readily available in my clothes/shoes budget, its easier to say “nope, I can’t” and not look back. “I choose not to…” brings up all kinds of things to ponder and ruminate on (“What AM I choosing? What could I give up to save that money?”) and waste more time.

  9. I think sometimes these discussions can be like when someone points out to you that a tomato isn’t a vegetable.

    Ok, this is technically true, but no one’s going to put it into a fruit salad anyway, so what is the point?

    In the same way, while some things technically are choices, for all intents and purposes, they’re really not.

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